How a Huntsville family grew a compost company into a national tea retailer
It all started with compost. When Connor Knapp decided to give up a job in Antarctica to move home to Huntsville, he launched a business with his family to sell compost at the farmers market. Since Connor’s brother-in-law Caleb had been mixing teas made from ingredients in his garden and Connor had always wanted to sell something out of a Mason jar, they also decided to sell a few special tea blends. From the very first farmers market, it was clear what the true product would be: freshly mixed tea, drunk sweetened and ice cold from a Mason jar. And thus, what would eventually become Piper & Leaf was born.
“Selling compost started as a family project and hobby to create community,” Knapp says. “Long story short, we never sold any dirt while we kept selling out of tea. Our motivation has always been to bring the community together.”
Piper & Leaf started out small, selling at farmers markets in Huntsville and then eventually Birmingham. At each market, lines and lines of people showed up to get a 32-ounce Mason jar of one of Piper & Leaf’s weekly ready-to-drink flavors. As the company grew, regular customers showed up week after week with their reusable jars ready to be filled.
In addition to tea for drinking on-site, Piper & Leaf also offered loose-leaf tea bags for sale. They began to expand their flavors steadily and now have a roster of 16 year-round flavors as well as seasonal options. Their tea leaves are sourced from tea-growing regions such as Sri Lanka, India, China, Japan, and Africa and are blended with fresh produce from Alabama farmers. Several herbs and fruits such as apples, beets, figs, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and more are sourced from the north Alabama region.
Piper & Leaf’s flagship and most popular tea blend is the Front Porch Special, a fancied-up take on the classic sweet tea. Locally sourced jasmine, spearmint, and cornflower are mixed with bergamot-infused Assam and Ceylon black tea leaves in this tea that Southern Living honored in its annual food awards in 2015.
As Piper & Leaf built a loyal following and found its place in the community, it was time for them to grow yet again. The lessons they learned from working farmers markets set the foundation for an expanded business model.
“At the farmers markets, we fortified our process and values with the importance of working together with other local businesses for the best success,” Knapp says. “We went from a disjointed but adorable weekly tent to a hard working and efficient team.”
In 2014, Piper & Leaf opened their first brick-and-mortar location at Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment in Huntsville. There, they could offer items like hot loose-leaf tea, tea lattes, Italian sodas, boba tea, and more. They could further educate people on tea while also providing a space for the community to gather. After the success of that location, they went on to open a second location in Huntsville, one in Madison, and one in Birmingham.
Knapp says the goal of Piper & Leaf is to learn and grow as they work to improve and brighten the culture, health, and education of people who come in contact with their tea. They now ship and sell all of their teas nationwide via online sales (which was the core of their business in 2020 throughout the COVID-19 pandemic), as well as brew kits, boba tea kits, and tea subscription services. As they look forward to growing even more — Knapp says a mobile tea trailer to trek across the country is in the works — they will always remain driven by their family values, their desire to foster community, and their North Alabama roots.
Julia Sayers Gokhale is a writer and editor who has been working in the lifestyle journalism industry since 2012. She was Editor in Chief of Birmingham Magazine for five years and is now leading Yellowhammer News’ lifestyle content. Find her on Instagram at @juliasayers or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.